King Lear: the personal and the political

I don’t think it’s any secret that I love teaching A level English. I think A level – especially Year Twelve – is a really important time, when students are starting to find out who they are intellectually now that they can focus on just three subjects. There are those lovely moments when someone becomes completely hooked on a topic they’d never heard of six months previously, and you can almost see an entire career starting to take shape before your eyes. Sometimes, you’ll suggest something that they could follow up, a bit of extra reading, and they’ll take the idea and run with it. I remember this phase of my own life very vividly, and the sense that there were spaces opening up inside my head, exciting and addictive and a little bit scary. Connections are firing and interpretations being made, and sometimes – even after twenty-six years – it is so bloody brilliant that I get to the end of a lesson and can’t believe I actually get paid to do all of this.

I had one of those moments the week before last, when Year Twelve were looking at the concept of anagnorisis. I know some people are sceptical about using Aristotelian concepts to analyse tragedy, and I do think they need careful handling: it’s not enough to simply get students to learn them and apply them, because that often leads to lots of over-schematic analysis. And anagnorisis is a case in point. Aristotle defines it as a change from ignorance to knowledge, which could involve the recognition of someone’s true identity – as when Lear recognises that he has trusted the wrong daughters – or an acknowledgement of one’s own tragic error. Students often want to find one single moment that they can label, but in King Lear, anagnorisis is more of a process. The first hint of it occurs as early as Act 1 Scene 5, just after the violent scene in which Lear curses Goneril. Lear and the Fool are on stage together, and there’s a sense that the Fool is, gently, trying to encourage the emotionally spent king to think about what he has done:

FOOL: Thou canst tell why one’s nose stands i’the middle on’s face?
FOOL: Why, to keep one’s eyes of either side’s nose; that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.
KING LEAR: I did her wrong –
FOOL: Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?

Lear’s ‘I did her wrong – ’ is the first sign we get that he recognises the rashness of his actions. Tantalisingly, though, it’s broken off, interrupted by the Fool. It’s not until the end of this scene that Lear returns to the subject of himself, this time with an anguished plea for sanity:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!

Next time we see him, in Act 2 Scene 4, Lear’s grasp on sanity has become even more precarious. It is in this scene that he recognises how Goneril and Regan have manipulated him. Crucially, he is also beginning to question the values that he has lived by. His daughters are trying to persuade him that he does not need his hundred knights, and in response, Lear utters his great, agonised speech on the nature of need, recalibrating his sense of what is really necessary. And then, in the scenes on the heath in Act 3, we see Lear’s recognition of the shortsighted way in which he has governed his country, ignoring the needs of the ‘poor naked wretches’, with their ‘houseless heads’ and ‘unfed sides’, who must bear the full force of the storm:

O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

This is where Year Twelve come in. One of them, considering Lear’s acknowledgement of the state of his country, asked: does anagnorisis have to be about personal faults? Can characters undergo a political anagnorisis as well? And we decided that this is certainly true of Lear. His anagnorisis certainly has a personal dimension, but I’d argue that it’s Lear’s political anagnorisis that makes this such an astonishing play, lifting it out of a purely domestic realm.

‘Off, off, you lendings–Come unbutton here,’ William Sharp, 1793. (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Kiernan Ryan’s recent book Shakespearean Tragedy explores the political dimension of King Lear in detail. Ryan makes it clear that the staging of the play – at Whitehall, in front of King James I – could itself be seen as a profoundly transgressive act, confronting the king with ‘a mighty monarch, James’s legendary precursor on the throne of Albion, [who] is robbed not just of his royalty but the roof over his head, and forced to feel the deprivation, the biting cold and the despair that the hungry, homeless outcasts of his kingdom must endure’ (Ryan, 163). For Ryan, the most remarkable moment in the play is when Lear tears off his clothes – a moment when the king realises that ‘beneath his royal robes and a mad beggar’s rags shivers the same “poor, bare, forked animal”’ (194). As Lear strips himself of his ‘lendings’, he ‘enacts the understanding that the monarchy itself, and the unequal distribution of property, wealth and power it preserves, have no foundation in nature’ (195). This moment is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it would have been witnessed by King James itself, and that it took place at a time when the clothes that people were allowed to wear were governed by the sumptuary laws, meaning that one’s clothing gave a clear visual sign of one’s place in the social hierarchy. Ryan goes on to point out that this stripping-away of garments reveals not just the ‘physiological kinship’ of people of different ranks and classes, but also ‘the potential they share with their fellow human beings to be someone quite different from the person they became and believe themselves to be’ (196).

There are, of course, so many connections that can be drawn between Lear’s anagnorisis – his recognition of the corrupting power of wealth and status, of the different rules that apply to rich and poor – and our current political situation. Plate sin with Lulu Lytle wallpaper, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks … Pomp, as Lear urges, should ‘take physic’, and expose itself ‘to feel what wretches feel’. We are enjoying finding the parallels, whilst hoping that hubris will meet its inevitable counterpart. I’m not sure Shakespeare has ever seemed so relevant.

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